ASPEN - Pitkin County officials haven't come any closer to figuring out whether to pave the Rio Grande Trail outside Aspen or provide an alternate paved route, but they have set a date to make a decision: March 19.
But before that date, the county's Open Space and Trails board of trustees is scheduled to reach a preliminary conclusion Jan. 10 and make a recommendation Jan. 24. County commissioners will discuss the recommendation Feb. 11 and 26, according to the timetable. After a commissioners discussion March 12, final direction from both commissioners and open space officials is scheduled March 19.
Commissioners were briefed Tuesday on the timetable and the trail issue that open space officials have been wrestling with for several months.
"The question is percolating. Everyone knows what to do, but no one agrees," said Dale Will, Open Space and Trails director.
With options that range in cost from about $700,000 to $22 million, and a couple of alternatives in the $6 million range that have garnered a fair amount of discussion, open space officials are aiming for a decision early in the spring so that engineering work for whatever alternative is chosen can be done in 2013. The goal is submitting an application for what officials anticipate will be a significant round of trails project grants from Great Outdoors Colorado in early 2014.
"That's a train we've got to catch," Will told the open space board in a separate meeting Tuesday morning. "If we miss that one, this trail is going to cost a significant amount more in local money."
The options include simply upgrading the 4.2-mile gravel link in the otherwise paved trail linking Aspen and Glenwood Springs, at a cost of about $700,000, or upgrading the trail and providing paved climbing lanes at either end of McLain Flats Road (a detour around the gravel section) at a total cost of $4.8 million.
A full-width dual-surface trail (both gravel and pavement) along the Rio Grande alignment would cost about $22 million according to estimates, while providing a dual surface where there's room in the 4.2-mile stretch and pavement alone where it's too narrow for both would cost an estimated $6.1 million. Finally, providing a dual-surface trail on the lower two miles of the gravel stretch and routing a paved path over the Roaring Fork River gorge on a new bridge, linking to the Aspen trail system at the Aspen Business Center, would cost about $6.2 million. The latter option leaves about two miles of the gravel stretch, through the Shale Bluffs canyon and along the river below Stein Park, as a soft surface.
Commissioners didn't offer their thoughts Tuesday, except for Jack Hatfield, who will leave office in early January.
"I think we can undermine the program by doing all this construction, spending all this money," he said. "We must be careful with what we do here. We can ruin the very thing that we value."
Hatfield called the bridge option the most detrimental of the alternatives because it will intensify use on the Rio Grande by linking the residential population in and around the business center to the trail via a paved link.
With the Rio Grande seeing some 600 users per day in the summer months through the segment in question, the bridge might be a way to divert some traffic from the narrow canyon stretch, Will countered.
"We've got a trail that is already getting toward its capacity," he said.
Commissioner Rob Ittner questioned what more can be done to engage a broader segment of the community in the debate, though open space officials already have gone to great lengths to elicit input from the public.
"We're talking about the bike entrance to Aspen," said open space board member Howie Mallory. "We really have an opportunity to create a first-rate experience. I think the community gets that."